Writing about K-music when you are not Korean nor speak Korean can be a confusing task. Much as we like to say to ourselves that music transcends language, such platitudes are only true to a certain degree, and border on sanctimony. Art comes from culture. Without engaging with that culture, you’ve no idea what birthed the art in the first place. You don’t know what relationships influence it, what history informs it, what values it relates to.
To listen to N.W.A. without knowing the social context of the U.S. in the late ‘80s, without knowing of Reaganomics and racialized depictions of Black people in media, is to listen clueless of why their music means so much, why it sounds the way it does, and why millions were captivated by it. And without knowing the English translations, you wouldn’t have a clue why Eazy-E is yelling; much less the usage of certain AAVE, certain forms of profanity, certain double entendres, or their significance.
And yet, you can still appreciate it.
This is the story we know of the world and its adaptation of Black American musical forms. Rock ‘n roll, hip hop, jazz — these contain profound histories and culturalities, but they also have really interesting soundscapes. Even if you don’t speak a word of English or know a thing about grunge, the feeling you may get from hearing the churning intro of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” at whatever age, in whatever place, can change you forever. It can shock you; it can resonate with things you’ve never known about yourself.
This is similar to what listeners like me try to do with Korean music. We know that we know very little. Of course, the genres come from the United States; we grew up with them booming from our radios and obsessed over in our subgroups. We can meet in a common place with these records. But when we meet, how do we converse? How do we understand the performers, and their words? How do we understand the composers and their choices? And how can we respond? I hope making this list of my favorite records from 2021 is a start. But there’s far more work to do.
Fans of Hallyu — a term referring to the Korean pop cultural wave emerging in the 21st century that includes K-pop and K-dramas — have grappled with this quietly for ages. A BTS stan like myself can be loud as fuck about how much respect everyone around us owes our boys, but in the dark, we’re also constantly questioning: What’s the best way to understand their lyrics? Their choices? Their interviews? As a fan, as a person in a relationship (parasocial or otherwise), decency means frequently taking time out to think about that relationship, and how to make it better (and also trying not to overthink — a restraint I have clearly mastered).
Most Korean music listeners start in a naive place of enjoyment. For some of us, it’s a K-pop group that lifts our spirits, for others, it’s a Korean singer whose voice melts us. Being naive is a good place to start, but we cannot permanently be in that state; we have to nurture our enthusiasm with continued learning. This is hard, however, because there is a system in place that aims to keep us as naive in our perception of Hallyu as possible.
Western K-pop journalists never question labels’ decisions or artists’ conduct. They, themselves, are hired as useful naifs. Usually, they don’t speak Korean even though they are literally paid to write about music in the Korean language and interview Korean-speaking people. Their job is to promote naivete. Instead of writing to incur thought about Korean artistry, economics, and social norms, they write business-minded puff pieces. Groups are good because they sing good, rap good, dance good, look good. They work hard and have fans; can they be another BTS? Hit the 800 word limit, send the piece to the editor at your publication, check’s in the mail on Thursday.
Imagine this standard for other sectors of our already-questionable music journalism industry. Imagine if the arrival of any reggaeton artist to the U.S. market were greeted solely by white, non-Spanish-speaking journalists. Imagine if their descriptions of reggaeton were essentially the phrase “hard-hitting raps” over and over again. Imagine if they had no negative things to say about artists’ labels and conduct; no critical analysis of their music. Imagine if their coverage of each new reggaetonero asked if they could be “the next Daddy Yankee.” As a Latinx person, I know coverage of our music is bad out here, but en comparación…
Related Sauce: HipHopNumbers: Future’s Love of Lean, Drake’s Social Silence, Missy’s Musicianship, & more
The reason it is so bad is because K-pop is “supposed” to be received by naivete. These journalists are not hired because they have a drive to cover Korean music with painstaking insight. They’re hired so that online magazines can get clicks from K-pop fans. They’re hired because rich K-pop CEOs want safe coverage from well-known sites — shit that looks good for a group’s SEO.
I don’t write all this to sound heroic; I have no power, and know very little. I don’t want anything to do with folks in that vacuum. I write this because I hope it illuminates some of the barriers between music fans in the West and musicians in Korea.
My goal with this list is to share some knowledge I have acquired out of enthusiasm for a boundless Korean music scene. Don’t believe the hype — it’s not some overly corporatized, creatively bankrupt landscape (at least not any more than anywhere else). The Korean indie scene has not only flourished for decades, but has been, frankly, the foundation of the Korean music world. Independent — and often politically dissident — artists are in the DNA of the idol groups and R&B crooners we know from today’s South Korea.
Just as you would urge someone to know about the cultural context of great Western artists from Kendrick to the Kinks, and just as their music and stories serve as pathways to education, I urge you to learn about South Korea through South Korean artists. Avoid K-pop commentary channels and American magazines; seek the well-written and well-cited.
Our literature on these scenes is barely extant; I hope that changes. Here is my contribution. I have listed 11 Korean songs, in no particular order, that I loved this past year. They in no way showcase the full breadth of South Korea’s music scene. This is not even a comprehensive ranking. These are just favorites of mine, and they are great.
KIMYEJI — “Scared”
Kim Yeji stunned viewers of SUPERBAND2 this past June with her audition, featuring a raucous rendition of Bishop Briggs’ “River.” Months earlier, she released “Scared” to little reception, but it’s a chilling record. Its resemblance to ‘90s rock records recalls frontwomen like Liz Phair; paired with her earnest, haunting vocals, soaked in reverb, and her wide-eyed stare, Kim seems a disciple of Hope Sandoval. Her lyrics are, similarly, ambiguous in a sweetly disturbing way: “I smile but I can’t approach you / I feel like it gets smaller and disappears / Oh, darkness swallows me.”
eAeon feat. RM — “Don’t”
The feature of eAeon’s famous friend may call attention to “Don’t,” but its cavernous, synthy melancholy will stay with you too. It is haunting. As the indie veteran begs a lover not to “throw away everything,” bellowing sawtooth chords drown his voice, sounding like an inevitable hopelessness — synthetic, but all too real. Suddenly, BTS leader RM sings poetics an octave under his duet partner, his voice rumbling, like a feeling in the pit of your stomach: “Were those prior times adrift okay for you? Can’t you remain here as a pebble?” The song swirls, laments and dreams, and then, like the love it sings of, ends too soon.
STAYC — “Stereotype”
This list needs sunlight! “Stereotype,” another hit single by 2021 rookie girl group StayC, is maybe their best work. It has captivated so many K-pop enthusiasts because it gets back to basics in a time where most idol music tries to do everything at once (and as loud as possible). We have here some cute plucky synths, skillfully jubilant vocals, and a bouncy, fast beat. It is 3 minutes of well-articulated fun — and God knows we needed it last year.
BIBI — “Bad Sad and Mad”
The music video only features half of the record. Watch it, marvel at its suggestive use of bondage and glimmering headpieces, and then go listen to the full thing. Much of Korean R&B and pop use Atlanta-influenced hip-hop skeletons and fill them with pretty. BIBI turns the pretty into ugly. Sure, she’ll give you addictive, soothing melodies; but she’ll pair them with clever viscera. “Black my bones and purple my eyes / You read my mind,” she sings. The song refuses to scale upward or change progression. When it ends, you feel as if you’ve closed a music box hiding terrible secrets. That is until, addicted, you open it up again.
Related Sauce: Unprecedented: Big K.R.I.T.’s Groundbreaking Career as a Dual-Discipline Artist [Beats & Bars]
THAMA feat. GSoul — “Blessed”
Amoeba Culture constantly delivers. THAMA’s breezy baritone anchors “Blessed,” a stunning ode to neo-soul–beautiful basslines, rimshot snares and swinging hats. It’s so cool and classy. It even connects, at its core, with the Godliness from which much of Black music gains inspiration: “Blessed to be with you all the time,” announces the chorus. So who would be the perfect duet partner on a Korean record neck-deep in nostalgic R&B vibes? Obviously, it’s Korea’s most dexterous male vocalist, its truest, bluest, soul singer, the GSoul, who brings the track home and makes passionate love to it. Also, the music video is deeply, deeply necessary.
TXT — “Anti-Romantic”
“Anti-Romantic” lacking a big-budget rollout is a rare blemish on Big Hit Music’s promo record. The song caught flames from the moment it came out as the first track of TXT’s The Chaos Chapter: Freeze, gaining TikTok virality and constant Twitter buzz. Rarely is a pop song this catchy and this beautiful. It offsets any sappiness inherent in youthful unrequited love ballads with deft chord progression, beautifully honest vocals, and smart, self-aware lyricism. The refrain, “Sorry I’m an anti-romantic,” is relatable in a real way, not in a Spotify Wrapped tryhard way. It speaks to the inevitability of our self-destructive melodrama; love really sucks sometimes, and we just can’t help but hate it.
Wonstein & LILBOI — “Friends”
Korean hip hop is a topic that amasses controversy; for all the talented lyricists and beatmakers the scene holds, its tendency towards the hackiest anti-Black cultural appropriations even as global pro-Black movements gain awareness is suicidal. Additionally, new K-rap records often feel like they’re trend-hopping U.S. hip-hop acts, and at least one or two years late. With this, artists like Wonstein and LILBOI constitute not just a brightspot, but a path forward. “Friends” is a soulful tune for the everyman, coming to grips with aging and distancing themselves from friends and fun times: “Right now, I’m in a sink hole on the couch you left behind,” Wonstein raps.
Epik High feat. Colde — “Rain Song”
The pioneers will always be the pioneers. Epik High were the first stars of Korean hip hop and led it with immaculate respectability. They’ve mastered the solemn, soothing rap anthem. Tablo and Mithra Jin continue to rap nimbly over breakbeats; Mithra’s metaphors remain layered, here rapping of a rainstorm that represents inescapable bad memories; Tablo’s words are as tightly wound as they are shattering (“If I try to hold the emotions in, they’ll swallow me alive”). Colde steps in and fills the Epik High Chorus Vocalist role artfully. The beloved trio, two decades since their formation, remain the picture of consistency.
Rolling Quartz — “Blaze”
The girl band, though forever overlooked, remains a form through which women can invest their rebellious energy and talent and shape generations of women like them. Rolling Quartz are among the latest to utilize that form, and they do so with powerful grace. They fuse pop-punk and heavy metal elements; they perform with vigorous joy. Lead guitarist Iree’s riffs are catchy, but nuanced. Singer Jayoung’s vocals are Earth-shattering, but pure. “Blaze” is a raw, resounding debut for the band, whose star potential may only need a fan-led push to manifest into global impact.
DPR LIVE feat. Beenzino and Hwa Sa — “Hula Hoops”
Take the trendy, make it indie; that’s the modus operandi of Dream Perfect Regime, a creative collective with global buzz (recently featured in the Shang-Chi soundtrack). Of all the Korean rap and pop records to attempt usage of a dembow rhythm in the vein of today’s Latin pop hits, “Hula Hoops” is the most successful. It’s breezy and sticky. It’s DPR Live’s celebration of the “edgy” girl that refuses to conform to beauty standards because “she’s too cool for that.” Beenzino’s speedy verse quips about his lover being up-and-down like cryptocurrency (sadly misusing the term “bipolar” all the while), and Mamamoo’s Hwasa pops up for a tasteful bridge that takes her caramel voice and melts it into a jumping final chorus.
BTS feat. Megan Thee Stallion — “Butter”
Duh. It’s the Hot Girl Coach and BTS.